Join thousands of weekly readers and receive practical marketing advice for FREE.
MarketingSherpa's Case Studies, New Research Data, How-tos, Interviews and Articles

Enter your email below to join thousands of marketers and get FREE weekly newsletters with practical Case Studies, research and training, as well as MarketingSherpa updates and promotions.


Please refer to our Privacy Policy and About Us page for contact details.

No thanks, take me to MarketingSherpa

First Name:
Last Name:
Oct 30, 2002
Case Study

5 Marketing Tactics Tested to Sell Subscriptions to Individual Investors Online

SUMMARY: This Case Study has one very big stealable idea for a way to improve your Web site results. Read it and then test it out for yourself.

Most Web site changes lead to incremental growth. You change a bit of copy, or the color of a button, and voila .005% more of your visitors buy something. Which is to be celebrated. Once in a blue moon a single improvement makes a profound difference to the bottom line. found one that meant some visitors were four times more likely to buy.

When Dick Green founded back in 1996 with the intention of selling subscriptions to individuals seeking stock and bond investing advice online, practically everyone he knew told him he was an idiot.

"You can't sell subscriptions online! It's all about ad sales."

Green's background was in creating very high quality content for the paid licensing marketplace. He had sold stock and bond analysis feeds to companies such as Bloomberg. Now he wanted to provide the same type of high quality analysis for individual investors, and he believed they would be eager to pay too.

He started by marketing mass subscription site licenses to companies such as E*TRADE who were allowed to give the content to their active brokerage accounts (although not to non-active registered users or the general public). In essence these were group subscriptions for individuals, and as such they were priced by the seat.

Next, he wanted to supplement this income by selling subscriptions directly to individuals. He set out to figure out exactly how.

CAMPAIGN's SVP Marketing & Business Development David Beasley outlined the five main tactics has tested to sell subscriptions direct to consumers.

-> Tactic #1: Converting F*ree Content Readers

For the first year, from September 1996 to September 1997, anyone on the Web could come to and see all of the site's content for f*ree. Green figured this would give his content and Web team a chance to have a shakedown cruise, plus give consumers a good taste of what they would later be asked to pay for.

However, from day one the site carried a notice that this content would not be f*ree forever.

The tactic worked extremely well. When switched to paid-only after Labor Day in 1997, 40% of the initial audience converted to paying. The initial price was $6.95 month/$70 year. Green raised it to $9.95/$100 year in 1999 after figuring that sales and renewals were so high that he probably was underpricing himself for maximum profits. (Just 7% of subscribers dropped off at the higher price, so he was right.)

In early 2002, when the marketing team began to look for ways to push subscription sales, they harkened back to that initial success. Why not test an ongoing f*ree content service again and see if they could convert from it?

Now visitors can sign up for their choice of any or all of four different no-cost newsletters:
a. Three-times daily email newsletter, "Before the Bell, Mid-day & After the Close"
b. Weekly Wrap sent on Fridays
c. Monthly brief
d. Premium offers (basically ads for subscriptions). promoted these offerings by adding a column packed with bulleted marketing copy to its home page, and by placing ads in other personal investing-related online media. They tested banners bought on a CPM basis though networks such as Doubleclick, and ads bought on CPA in targeted email newsletters.

The landing page that everyone clicked through to (link below) was carefully constructed to convert as many clicks to opt-in subscribers as possible. People are shy of giving out their email address these days, so built trust by putting both a link to its Trust-E logoed privacy statement and adding the following sentence in small but clear letters next to the opt-in box:
" does not sell or rent any of your personal information and you will only receive e-mails for which you opt-in."

Next the team began to test tactics to convert the newsletter readers into paying subscribers by offering them a f*ree trial month's subscription to the paid service. Trial users were required to give a credit card up front, but it was only charged after the trial period was over.

The marketing team tested ads in the newsletters, as well as promotional letters to the people who had signed up for the "Premium Offers" option.

In each case, the team carefully tracked when in a new reader's lifetime that reader was more likely to convert to the trial.

-> Tactic #2: Branding (with a hotlink)

Classic direct response marketers rarely mention branding as one of their top-line tactics. From the start, Green was looking at the Company as a very long-term operation. "I used to tell everyone they'd end up working for my son someday. He was two or three years old then."

For him it was not about getting lots of clicks on a particular campaign, or impressing shareholders with a great quarterly report. It was about building a Company to last
generations. In Green's view the cornerstone of that type of success is high quality content coupled with a rock-solid trusted brand name.

Aside from investing in an in-house PR staffer (an unusual tactic for a small subscription-based publishing company), Green grew the brand by selling a slice of content on a licensed basis to more than 100 sites his target demographic visited frequently.

Sites had their choice of two different levels of feed:

- "Live" Partners such as CNBC, Money Central and Yahoo Finance carried a slice of content (perhaps 70% of what a paid subscriber would see) on their publicly available sites. The price was $5000 per month, plus the assurance that a hotlinked logo would appear next to every single piece of content.

- "Basic" partners got a thinner slice of the content for $1000 a month, with the same hotlinked logo provision.'s team pitched these deals personally to the bigger sites (Green notes it was fairly easy then, but would be much, much harder for a new publisher today) and to smaller sites by placing all the information needed to license content right on the site. (Beasley notes there have been times when sites simply faxed over a signed agreement without even calling first.)

Green worried that marketing this way might cannibalize the site's potential subscribers, but he persisted anyway.

-> Tactic #3: Improving the home page

As traffic ramped up through those hotlinked logos to the home page, Beasley's team began a series of tweaks designed to improve conversions from visitor to trial (paid) subscription sign-up.

"We honed the process over the years," explains Beasley, "We've learned to keep things simple and make the copy really tight and bullet-pointy. On our home page we increased the clickable area. With the f*ree trial, we went from just explaining it with one click line to making it clickable anywhere anyone wanted to click on it."

He adds, "It's not rocket science, but each change increased the click throughs 5%, 10%, another 5%." Over the years these small incremental changes have added up to significant impact.

-> Tactic #4: Adding a site tour

This spring the team decided to test out adding a clickable button reading "Not a subscriber? Take our tour" to the home page and several other popular public pages in the site.

The tour starts with a photo of Green and a quick note from him beginning, "Why should you pay for content online?"

Next, the tour continues showing a few pages of's most popular types of content (as evidenced by subscriber viewership logs) with little arrowed boxes explaining what each feature is about.

At any point during the tour, viewers can click to start their own trial subscription.

-> Tactic #5: Educating Trials to Improve Paid Conversions

By studying sales reports carefully, Beasley found that the first 90 days of a subscription were the critical period. "There's a big fat [cancels] curve for the first 90 days," he explains. "then if they stay, the line goes flat. People are staying for two years or longer. They are really loyal."

This summer the marketing team invented a "Welcome Module" consisting of educational materials about how to get the most from your subscription. When trial subscribers first sign up, they are invited to click on a link to see the module. Plus they are also emailed a Welcome letter with a link to the module.

Then during their trial, they receive three more weekly letters educating them about the benefits of subscribing and how to get the most from the content. (Link to samples of all four letters below.)

RESULTS has been profitable for the past "16 straight quarters," says Green. While the Company also generates revenues from some ad sales (which began in 1999) and from the licensed content, it is primarily subscription-driven.

More metrics:

- About 65% of paid individual subscribers chose the year-long subscription option (which fits in with the general range we have seen from similar publishers). Green does not feel month-to-month subscriptions are better or worse than annuals because the profits end up being about the same. Annuals pay 17% less, but they take up less admin time, cost less in processing fees, and are less likely to cancel.

- Both Green and Beasley say the hotlinked logos on their licensed content throughout the Web is hands down the biggest driver of new paid subscriptions for the site. Green says while he expects he has lost some subscriptions to cannibalization, the tactic has been so successful that he does not mind.

- Beasley learned a great deal about effective list building during the banner and email tests to get more opt-ins to the f*ree newsletters earlier this year. CPM banners through ad networks proved incredibly expensive, costing $40 per person added to the list as a result. Targeted banners on carefully selected sites did a bit better. CPA ads in email newsletters did best of all, costing 50-75 cents per name acquired.

- As expected, Beasley found that these f*ree newsletter subscribers were great prospects to convert to trials for the paid service. However, (this is the fascinating bit) his
conversion success varied radically depending on how long they had been receiving the f*ree newsletter.

"If you send them a promo and they've only been on the list for a week, it's not going to do very well. If they've been on two to four weeks, it's going to do better. You still have to have the right pitch - you can't just throw something out there and they buy it. However, if you do it the right way, the same exact promo will do better by a factor of two-to-four times when sent two weeks later [in that name's lifetime]."

This also is a curve. As a name stays on the list for longer and longer, the likelihood it will respond to the same-old subscription offer then goes down again, although it never drops to zero.

- The site tour test has proven outstandingly successful. According to Green, site visitors who take the tour are four times more likely to sign up for the trial paid subscription than site visitors who do not take the tour.

- A very healthy 45% of new trial subscribers are clicking on the link on the site or in their Welcome letter to take the "Welcome Education Module". Beasley does not have numbers on how these particular people are renewing yet, but takes this high click rate as a good sign.

Useful links:

Sample of the four letters in the trial series: site tour start: home page:
See Also:

Post a Comment

Note: Comments are lightly moderated. We post all comments without editing as long as they
(a) relate to the topic at hand,
(b) do not contain offensive content, and
(c) are not overt sales pitches for your company's own products/services.

To help us prevent spam, please type the numbers
(including dashes) you see in the image below.*

Invalid entry - please re-enter

*Please Note: Your comment will not appear immediately --
article comments are approved by a moderator.

Improve Your Marketing

Join our thousands of weekly Case Study readers.

Enter your email below to receive MarketingSherpa news, updates, and promotions:

Note: Already a subscriber? Want to add a subscription?
Click Here to Manage Subscriptions

Best of the Week:
Marketing case studies and research

Chart Of The Week

B2B Marketing

Consumer Marketing

Email marketing

Inbound Marketing

SherpaStore Alerts


We value your privacy and will not rent or sell your email address. Visit our About Us page for contact details.